Friday 30 April 2010

Former ISI officer murdered by captors

Former ISI officer Khalid Khwaja, kidnapped several weeks ago, along with Col. Imam - another former ISI officer - and British journalist Asad Qureshi, has been found dead, dumped alongside the Miramshah-Mirali road in North Waziristan. A note attached to his bullet-riddled body claimed responsibility for the killing in the name of the Asian Tigers - a previously unknown group thought to be members of the Punjabi Taliban.
The group had initially asked for the freedom of a number of Afghan Taliban leaders imprisoned in Pakistan plus a $10m ransom for Qureshi. After the Afghan Taliban repudiated them and mocked them for hiding behind a made-up name, they changed their demands, instead seeking the release of various Punjabi militants from prison.
In the end, religion or politics played little part in this tacky story. This was never much more than a criminal kidnapping aimed at making money. When no-one responded to the cowardly kidnappers' demands, they cynically murdered one of their hostages.
Update: More on the background to Khwaja's killing, suggesting that the Asian Tigers are a group of militants expelled from the Pakistan Taliban and TTP, can be found in this useful article in The News, written by Mushtaq Yusufzai.

Thursday 29 April 2010

Pentagon's downbeat security report to Congress

Every 180 days the Pentagon has to submit a report to the US Congress covering progress towards security and stability in Afghanistan. The latest report, Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, covering the period 1 Oct 2009 to 31 Mar 2010, can be found here.
The report states: "The continuing decline in stability in Afghanistan, described in the last report, has leveled off in many areas over the last three months of this reporting period. While the overall trend of violence throughout the country increased over the same period a year ago, much of this can be ascribed to increased International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) activity. Polls consistently illustrate that Afghans see security as improved from a year ago. At the same time violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year – an 87% increase from February 2009 to March 2010."
So it's a mixed message. Afghans apparently say security is better than it was, but violence is definitely up.
ISAF divides Afghanistan into districts, of which it identifies 80 as being 'Key Terrain' districts - defined as areas that afford a marked advantage to whichever party controls them. They are areas where most of the population lives and which contain centres of economic productivity, infrastructure and commerce routes. These districts largely follow the national 'ring road' that links Kabul, Kandahar and Herat.
In addition, ISAF identifies 41 'Area of Interest' districts, defined as areas that exert influence on the Key Terrain districts.
It is these 121 districts that are the focus of most of the ISAF and Afghan military activity, although these forces can only operate in 48 districts in total.
The report notes that the population sympathises with or supports the Afghan government in only 29 out of 121 Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts - just 24 per cent, which is perhaps the most significant figure in this report.
The report also shows that the Taliban are no slouches when it comes to reassessing their military strategy. Taliban commanders responded to the US troop surge by ordering their fighters to avoid head-on clashes with US-led forces and instead stepping up their use of roadside bombs or IEDs:
"This reporting period has seen insurgent combatants adhere closely to their leaders' intent with a 236 percent increase in IEDs noted across the country and a marked increase in stand-off tactics compared to the same period last year".
The report also raises questions about the effectiveness of the Marjah offensive, saying the Afghan government has been slow to bring in the local administrators and development projects critical to winning over local people.
"The insurgents' tactic of re-infiltrating the cleared areas to perform executions has played a role in dissuading locals from siding with the Afghan government, which has complicated efforts to introduce effective governance," says the report.
It notes that the Taliban's "operational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding", adding that the "strength and ability of (insurgent-run) shadow governance to discredit the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government is increasing."

Hakimullah lives - Pakistani intel officials

Hakimullah Mahsud and Waliur Rahman

The Guardian and the BBC are both reporting this morning that Hakimullah Mahsud, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader thought to have been killed by a US missile on 14 January this year, is still alive.
According to Declan Walsh of The Guardian, a senior Pakistani intelligence official confirmed the news and said: "He had some wounds but he is basically OK." The BBC confirms the story but says that his standing within the TTP has been diminished and that other leaders, including Waliur Rahman, are now playing a more prominent role.
The news, if true, will be a blow to the US, who blame him for his role in a suicide bomb attack on a CIA base in Eastern Afghanistan in December last year that killed seven CIA officers. Hakimullah's reported death only two weeks later in a drone missile strike in the Shaktoi area of South Waziristan was seen as an eloquent response. However, even though Hakimullah's death was confirmed by Pakistan's interior minister, Rehman Malik, it was never confirmed by the Americans. Nor did an obituary appear in the jihadi media, as is usual on such occasions.
Update: Today, at the Pentagon in Washington, the following exchange took place between a reporter and Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell:
"Q In light of the reports today that Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban leader, is actually, in fact, alive, after U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials had declared him dead after the drone strike, are there any concerns in this building about the quality of intelligence that we're receiving in that part of the world?

MR. MORRELL: I mean, frankly, I've seen those reports. I don't know how much stock people put in them. I think we've always been very careful from -- from this podium in particular about talking about individuals and their fate.

The only thing I would add to that -- I don't know -- I can't tell you definitively one way or another. Part of that is I don't think we ever officially commented on any of these.

But I can also tell you that I certainly have seen no evidence that the person you speak of is -- is operational today or is executing or exerting authority over the Pakistan Taliban as he once did. So I don't know if that reflects him being alive or dead, but he clearly is not running the Pakistani Taliban anymore."

Thursday 22 April 2010

Doubts raised about Taliban reintegration plans

A new report by Matt Waldman of the Afghan Analysts Network offers a gloomy assessment of plans to reintegrate Taliban fighters back into society.
Golden Surrender explores the possibilities of implementing plans outlined at the London Conference in February to pay Taliban fighters to give up their struggle, an idea based on the idea that most fighters do so because they have little economic choice.
As Waldman notes, the risks are high: "A well-executed reintegration scheme could have positive social, economic, and stabilisation benefits – and thus reduce the force of the insurgency – but if mishandled, it could do the reverse. Without intelligent design, effective delivery, and political resolve it has the potential to exacerbate local security conditions, undermine high‐level talks, and even increase insurgent recruitment. It could also distract policy‐makers from action to tackle the root causes of the conflict. Reintegration addresses the symptoms of the disease, and not the disease itself."
He notes the very limited success of previous programmes such as the Strengthening Peace Programme, the 2003-6 Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration process implemented through the Afghan New Beginnings Program and the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) program, none of which have had much impact on reducing Taliban recruitment - now standing at around 36,000 active fighters.
The views contained in Waldman's paper have been well researched. It is based on "more than 50 in-depth interviews, mainly in or near Kabul and Kandahar, with officials, diplomats, politicians, analysts, civil society representatives, community, tribal, and religious leaders, 10 former senior Taliban officials (six former ministers and two ambassadors), seven insurgent field commanders (operating in Kandahar, Wardak, Ghazni, and Khost provinces), and one senior Taliban intermediary."
Many of the Taliban commanders interviewed, while open to the idea of peace negotiations, say that their fighters are not simply fighting for money and will not be tempted to give up for money.
As Waldman say, the reasons they fight are myriad: "In the briefest terms, some of these are tribal, community, and group exclusion or disempowerment; leverage in local rivalries, feuds, and conflicts; government predation, impunity, or corruption; criminality, disorder, and the perversion of justice; civilian casualties and abusive raids or detentions; resistance to perceived western occupation or suppression of Islam; the hedging of bets; and as a reaction to threats, intimidation, or coercion."
He quotes one Taliban commander in Kandahar: "if we were fighting for money we would try to find work. At the moment our country is invaded, there is no true sharia, there is crime and corruption. Can we accept these for money? How then could I call myself a Muslim and an Afghan?"
The report is not entirely negative and indeed, Waldman points out that the details of the latest reintegration programme have not yet been announced. But he is right to be cautious: "Perhaps the greatest risk is that the programme distracts policy‐makers from addressing the root causes of the conflict, especially predatory, exclusionary politics, and the abuse of power. This would be treating the symptoms while ignoring the cancer."

The chequered past of Khalid Khwaja

The family of Khalid Khwaja, the former Pakistan Air Force and ISI officer recently kidnapped in Waziristan, along with pro-Taliban Col. Imam and British documentary maker Asad Qureshi, now says that he has been captured by the Punjabi Taliban.
Despite earlier claims that the men were in Waziristan at the invitation of the leadership of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in order to make a film highlighting the 'atrocities' being committed by the Pakistan Army and US drones on the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Khwaja's family now says that the man who called and made demands from the captors identified himself as Usman Punjabi.
Usman Punjabi was known to both Khwaja and Imam. Both men made a trip to FATA about a month ago and when their guide refused to accompany them on this second trip, citing security concerns, Usman Punjabi sent a guide for them.
Despite his devotion to the cause of jihad, Khwaja could now be in difficulties. On a previous trip to Waziristan Khwaja is said to have conveyed a list of Punjabi Taliban leaders who were hiding in Waziristan to former TTP leader Baitullah Mahsud on behalf of the ISI. The ISI wanted Mahsud to hand them over.
And then, on his trip a month ago, some militants believed that Khwaja had supplied information to the Pakistani authorities that led to a missile strike that nearly killed TTP leader Waliur Rahman.
While Col. Imam has a long record of mentoring Afghan Taliban leaders and training guerrillas who fought against the Soviets, Khwaja has a much more chequered past. A former pilot, he spent only two years in the ISI before he was dismissed from his post on the Afghan desk in 1987 after writing a letter to General Zia ul-Haq saying he was a hypocrite for not imposing Islamic law in Pakistan.
"I went to Afghanistan and fought side-by-side with the Afghan mujahideen against Soviet troops. There I developed a friendship with Dr Abdullah Azzam [a mentor of bin Laden], Osama bin Laden and Sheikh Abdul Majeed Zindani [another mentor of bin Laden's]. At the same time, I was still in touch with my former organization, the ISI, and its then director general, retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul", he told Asia Times Online in 2005.
Khwaja says that after Zia's death in 1988 he tried, along with Gul, to prevent Benazir Bhutto from coming to power. He claims that he provided millions of dollars from Osama bin Laden to Nawaz Sharif and that Sharif met bin Laden five times:
"The most historic was the meeting in the Green Palace Hotel in Medina between Nawaz Sharif, Osama and myself", Khwaja told Asia Times Online. "Osama asked Nawaz to devote himself to "jihad in Kashmir". Nawaz immediately said, "I love jihad." Osama smiled, and then stood up from his chair and went to a nearby pillar and said. "Yes, you may love jihad, but your love for jihad is this much." He then pointed to a small portion of the pillar. "Your love for children is this much," he said, pointing to a larger portion of the pillar. "And your love for your parents is this much," he continued, pointing towards the largest portion. "I agree that you love jihad, but this love is the smallest in proportion to your other affections in life."
These sorts of arguments were beyond Nawaz Sharif's comprehension and he kept asking me. "Manya key nai manya?" [Agreed or not?] He was looking for a Rs500 million [US$8.4 million at today's rate] grant from Osama. Though Osama gave a comparatively smaller amount, the landmark thing he secured for Nawaz Sharif was a meeting with the [Saudi] royal family, which gave Nawaz Sharif a lot of political support, and it remained till he was dislodged [as premier] by General Pervez Musharraf [in a coup in 1999]. Saudi Arabia arranged for his release and his safe exit to Saudi Arabia."
Khwaja says that in the late 1990s he acted as a go-between for the Americans and the Afghan Taliban as the former tried to arrange for bin Laden to be extradited from Afghanistan. However, some reports say that he also acted as a pilot for bin Laden, who he claims to have met "hundreds" of times.
After 9/11, Khwaja came to public notice again when he was arrested in connection with the disappearance of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Khwaja, who exchanged emails with Pearl, had close connections with Sheikh Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, the religious leader Pearl was trying to interview when he disappeared in Karachi early in 2002. He was released without charge.
Little was heard of Khwaja again until 2007, when he was arrested outside the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad and charged with distributing 'hate' (ie anti-Shia) material. His arrest and subsequent detention for six months under the Maintenance of Public Order 1960 Law may have been connected with his campaigning for the release of dozens of militants who had 'disappeared' into ISI custody. Khwaja was close to the extremists who ran the mosque and it is also here that another event may have occurred that upset the Punjabi Taliban.
Two days ago a caller saying he was from the Punjabi Taliban told The News that Khwaja and his wife had played a negative role during the Lal Masjid crisis and instigated the mosque's leader, Maulana Abdur Rasheed Ghazi, to confront the government. And it gets worse:
“It was Khalid Khwaja and his wife who forced Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi to wear burqa to escape before the military operation was launched on Lal Masjid,” he claimed. “The group may release Col Imam and journalist Assad, but may not set free Khalid Khwaja for his dubious role,” he explained."
Khwaja's wife, in response, told The News that the claims were false: “You know wife and children of Maulana Ghazi stayed for over a month with us in our home. We had heard this allegation before and then one of Abdul Aziz Ghazi’s sisters asked her brother about this burqa issue. Ghazi said nobody had advised him but it was his own decision to wear a burqa and escape,” she said.
Oh dear. Now, now boys.
Having apparently qualified as a lawyer and started his Defence of Human Rights organisation - which only defends people allegedly under attack from the West - Khwaja has now become very active in the courts as a litigant.
In December 2009 he filed a petition seeking an end to the President's immunity under the Constitution. A week later he filed a petition seeking access to the six American nationals arrested in Sargodha and attempting to prevent their extradition. He told the court the six men had arrived in the counry to wage 'jihad' and that this was not a crime under any law.
In February he filed another petition against the arrest of five Afghan Taliban leaders, saying they should not be deported and that they should be produced before a court.
He also filed a petition challenging US drone attacks on Pakistani territory and urging the government to produce a report on the agreement with America and Blackwater on the use of drones in Pakistan. He sought directions from the government to get an FIR registered against US President Barack Obama for authorising the drone attacks.
The fact that the Afghan Taliban were not involved in Khwaja's kidnap was confirmed yesterday when their official spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid told The News they had nothing to do with the 'Asian Tigers': “If this is really a true jihadi organisation why didn’t it come with its original name,” he said, adding that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was completely ignorant about the group and its whereabouts.
Another senior Afghan Taliban commander also expressed his surprise over the kidnaps. “If we have publicly announced our fight against the major world powers in Afghanistan, then why we would keep our names secret while demanding release of our two leaders?” he commented.
While Col Imam is highly respected amongst the Afghan Taliban and other jihadi leaders, Khwaja seems to have made enemies. Whether they and Asad Qureshi are in the hands of the Punjabi Taliban or one of the criminal gangs that infest FATA and overlap in many cases with the jihadis, is still not entirely clear, although this now appears to be very likely. If so, prospects for Khwaja at least are not very good.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

The Karzai family strengthens its grip on Kandahar

The fifth of the impressive Afghanistan Reports from the Institute for the Study of War, released today, argues that the influence of the President Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, over the city of Kandahar, "is the central obstacle to any of ISAF’s governance objectives, and a consistent policy for dealing with him must be a central element of any new strategy".
Like two previous reports in this series, Politics and Power in Kandahar is written by Carl Forsberg, who argues that a strong, personality-driven political order is emerging in Afghanistan that undermines ISAF's goals.
Strong factors in this new political order include the declining influence of the tribes and the rise of the Karzai family. Control over guns, money and foreign support have now become important sources of power.
Forsberg says that Ahmed Wali Karzai and several of his close relatives are at the centre of a number of commercial and military networks that give him considerable influence over business life in Kandahar. His control over firms like Watan Risk Management and Asia Security Group allow him to enforce his political will and to give himself shadow ownership of the government of Kandahar.
Former Kandahar governor Gul Agha Sherzai runs a rival commercial network to Karzai and this is the main reason, says Forsberg, that he was removed from power in the city and transferred to Nangahar province by President Karzai in 2005.
All of this has consequences for ISAF because the local population sees the provincial goverment as "an exclusive oligarchy devoted to its own enrichment and closely tied to the international coalition". The Taliban are able to exploit this sentiment, with many local powerbrokers who are excluded from Ahmed Wali Karzai's circle only too willing to back the insurgency.
The problems in Kandahar are well known and there have been several attempts to remove Karzai from city, but these have been blocked by the President - causing deep frustration in Washington and London. As Forsberg notes: "In 2007 US Ambassador Ronald Neumann suggested to no avail that the president give his brother an ambassadorial post abroad in response to renewed allegations of Ahmed Wali’s involvement in the drug trade. This was repeated in November 2009, when Ambassador Eikenberry reportedly demanded that President Karzai remove Ahmed Wali Karzai from Kandahar, and again in the spring of 2010, only for the president to continue to refuse his brother’s removal. In a press interview in December 2009, President Karzai noted that it would be an abuse of his powers and a violation of the constitution for him to remove Ahmed Wali Karzai from his position as elected head of the Kandahar provincial council."
Whether or not Karzai junior is removed from Kandahar, Forsberg says ISAF can mitigate some of the worst effects of his presence by such measures as disarming private militias, reforming the way it lets contracts and doing more to build a professional administration in the province. None of these, sadly, will be easy.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

US contractor criticised for poor expenses records

Dyncorp International, the private US contractor that trains the Afghan police force, has failed to document millions of dollars in expenses and other costs, according to a US government audit report released last week by a US Senate subcommittee.
The November 2009 audit by the Defense Contract Audit Agency uncovered serious deficiencies in how DynCorp International tracks payroll, bills from subcontractors, cost vouchers and millions of dollars in labour costs. Many of DynCorp's billing and financial controls, the report found, were inadequate. In fact, all six systems audited were found to be inadequate or inadequate in part.
The heavily redacted audit report identifies ten significant deficiences, including inadequate employee training compliant with company ethics program requirements, inadequate delineation of authority, inadequate written procedures for adjusting costs, etc, etc. Presumably Dyncorp is not out of pocket. The company's contract was due to end in January but has been extended to the end of the year, pending an open competition for a new contractor.

Curious case of kidnap in Waziristan

Curious developments in the case of British journalist Asad Qureshi and the two former ISI officers, all of whom disappeared recently in Waziristan (see below) while on their way to film Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Waliur Rahman.
Yesterday Geo TV received a video that claims all three men have been kidnapped by a group that calls itself the 'Asian Tigers'. Besides the video, Geo TV also received an email demanding the release of several senior Afghan Taliban leaders, at least two of whom were recently arrested by Pakistani security forces. They included Mullah Barodar, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah and Maulavi Abdul Kabir.
The Asian Tigers' email (written in English) says: “Khalid Khwaja and Col Imam in Taliban custody. Both ISI persons are enemy of Islam and Muslims. We demand released all Taliban leaders, Mullah Brother (Baradar), Mullah Mansoor Dadullah and Mullah Kabir. We will send list of other mujahideen within a few days. Ten days time, if government not released mujahideen, then we will kill ISI officers or other decision.”
They have also asked for a $10 million ransom for Qureshi, although this is not mentioned in the email.
The video shows Colonel Imam (real name Sultan Amir Tarar) and Squadron Leader (retd) Khalid Khwaja making statements. Col Imam can be heard saying that his real name is Sultan Amir Tarar and that he served in the Pakistan Army for 18 years, 11 of them in the ISI.
“I had consulted with Gen Aslam Beg (former army chief) about coming here,” Col Imam says.
Khalid Khwaja says he served in the Pakistan Air Force for 18 years and in the ISI for two years. “I came here on the prodding of Gen Hameed Gul, Gen Aslam Beg and ISI’s Col Sajjad,” Khwaja says.
Clearly something is not right here. First, the name Asian Tigers is a joke. No jihadi organisation would give themselves a name that sounds more like a Los Angeles street gang.
Second, there is a lot of tension between the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban so it is unlikely that the former would approve of a kidnap operation in Pakistan aimed at freeing its leaders, particularly if it was to be carried out by the TTP on its behalf.
Third, Col Imam practically gave birth to the Taliban and he knows all of its leaders personally. The Afghan Taliban would not kill him and it is unlikely that TTP leader Waliur Rahman would be foolish enough to do so. Khwaja was responsible for initiating the court action that prevented Mullah Barodar from being extradited to Afghanistan several weeks ago.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that this is something else. In fact it stinks of the ISI, particularly the die-hard faction that continues to support the TTP. The fact that the names of former Generals Hameed Gul and Aslam Beg have been mentioned only strengthen this conviction. Both men are long-term supporters of violent jihad and both have shown support for al-Qaeda in the past. Perhaps they fear that Pakistan will hand over its Afghan Taliban prisoners to Afghanistan? Either way, it is likely that Col Imam and Khwaja are willing accomplices and that Asad Qureshi is possibly the only victim in this mess.

Violent incidents spike in Pakistan - PIPS

Casualties due to conflict in Pakistan (see tables above and below) showed a sharp spike last month, according to figures published by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, confirming that it remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The number of deaths due to violent conflict rose from 692 in February to 1002 in March, with similar rises for the number of people injured and the overall number of attacks.
The regional breakdown shows that Punjab suffered particularly badly, mainly due to casualties resulting from several devastating suicide bombings.

According to PIPS, the relative increase in the overall number of attacks is due to a higher number of terrorist/insurgents attacks reported in this month. They say: "The steep rise in the death casualties is due to large number of militants killed in the operational (304 killed) and their clashes with the security forces (177 killed); while the increase in the number of injuries is due to nine suicide attacks reported in this month in which a large number of civilians were injured."

Friday 16 April 2010

Interview with Sirajuddin Haqqani

Words from Sirajuddin Haqqani, commander of Afghan Taliban forces in Paktia, Khost and Paktika, are rare, so it is worth taking a look at an interview he has given to the pro-jihadi al-Balagh Media Centre. The interview, released on 13 April and now translated into English, reveals little of interest, although it is significant to see the extent to which Haqqani emphasises the importance of propaganda:
"The Internet Jihadists need to raise their level and organize themselves more, and come together, and increase their research, and publish their materials. They also need to be up to date, and they need to be fast with spreading the news from Islamic Jihadist world quickly, and release the messages from the commanders of Jihad. The goal is for their work to be something with a strong exclusive presence, they need to make the other (non-Jihadist) media agencies be asking for them, and not us asking for them. The Mujahideen need to help them, and the Jihadist movements need to increase their distributing of Jihadist material (statements, interviews etc...), and most importantly the official video releases. In addition, the general Muslim people need to help them financially, technically and by all other means. Internet Jihad networks are something we need to be proud of, and respect, the fact is that they are doing a great job."
The intereview was conducted by Fadil Abu Dujanah San'aani, who is probably a Yemeni. Haqqani emphasises in his interview that Arab fighters are welcome to fight with his forces against NATO. "They lighten our paths and resist the cross-worshipers in cooperation with us and we are with them in the same trench," he says.

Monday 12 April 2010

Dozens of 'loyal citizens' killed by Pak airforce

Little attention has been given to the Pakistani airforce bombs that tragically killed around 70 innocent people in Sera Vella in the Jamrud subdivision of the remote Tirah Valley on Saturday. Those few news outlets that reported the incident stated that the victims were extremists. However, this now seems not to be true.
According to one report, the first of two bombs was dropped on the house of tribesman Hameed Khan, a member of the Kukikhel Afridi sub-tribe and three of whose sons serve in the Frontier Corps. That killed two women and three children.
A gang of men working nearby on clearing a water channel - many of them serving soldiers - then began to dig in the ruins of the collapsed house looking for survivors when they were hit by the second bomb. This is when most of the fatalities took place. Others died from their wounds as relatives tried to take them to the nearest hospitals, often along small tracks in this remote area.
All those killed were loyal citizens, according to elders Malik Ikramullah and Malik Wazir Kukikhel, who called for an inquiry into the bombings. Ironically, the Sera Vella area, inhabited by the Kokikhel subtribe, is one of the few parts of Tirah and Khyber that is free of militants, with many residents serving in either the paramilitary Frontier Corps or the army.
In recognition of the error, Federal Minister of Environment Hameedullah Jan Afridi has asked officials of the Pakistan Air Force to apologise for the bombing. He added that the federal government will soon announce compensation for the survivors. Already substantial sums have been paid out by the local political agent.
It is thought that the target of the bombs was intended to be hideouts of fighters loyal to Lashkar-e-Islam leader Mangal Bagh Afridi.

Saturday 10 April 2010

Afghanistan's forgotten Hindus and Sikhs

Afghanistan is home to many ethnicities and religions, including small communities of Hindus and Sikhs. Anyone interested in finding out more about these groups should check out the Afghan Hindus and Sikhs website.
Written by exiles based in America, the site is full of interesting material about the history and culture of these groups. Many arrived when Kabul was part of the Mughal empire. Babar, the first Mughal Emperor, was based in Kabul and is buried there. And evidence of the ancient Buddhist Gandharan culture that originated in India is everywhere in the country.
There were around 50,000 Sikhs and Hindus in the country until the mid-1990s, but now there are around 1,500, most of whom are adult male Sikhs. The recent beheading of two Sikhs in Pakistan's tribal territory shows the danger they face from Islamist extremists. Last year the houses of around 35 Sikh families in Pakistan's Orakzai agency were burnt down and their property auctioned because they had not paid a $2,000 Jaziya tax - a sectarian abuse imposed on non-Muslims by fanatics.
Today, the plight of the Hindus and Sikhs is made worse by the rivalry between India and Pakistan over influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan accuses India of supporting and arming Baluchi nationalists, while Indians at their Embassy and working for the UN have been the target of suicide bombers who seem to be working in the interests of Pakistan's intelligence services.

Thursday 8 April 2010

British journalist disappears in Waziristan

British journalist Asad Qureshi has disappeared in North Waziristan while attempting to make a film about the area, according to reports from Pakistan today.
The reports say that Qureshi was in the company of two former ISI officers - Colonel Imam (real name Brigadier Sultan Amir Tarar) and Khalid Khwaja. Some reports say that another UK passport holder was also with the group. On 25 March they stayed at the house of Javed Ibrahim Paracha in Kohat on the border of the tribal territory: "Both had British passports," Paracha said. Paracha, a former member of the Pakistan National Assembly, now acts as a go-between for radical Islamists.
During their journey they reportedly held a meeting with a senior TTP commander, thought to be Waliur Rahman, and interviewed him for the TV documentary they were making.
After their interview, the sources said, a clean-shaved person who was already with them, came to Colonel Imam and his colleagues and took them to a nearby house. “After this I don’t know what happened to them,” said a tribal elder based in Mirali.
Colonel Imam is US-trained and spent 20 years running insurgents in Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad. He is known to be sympathetic to the Afghan Taliban and is said to have helped them stage a comeback in recent years. You can find a good backgrounder on him here.
Some accounts say that Waliur Rahman was suspicious of the group. Javed Ibrahim Paracha told The News that Rahman was suspicious about Khalid Khwaja’s activities and complained a US drone attacked his secret location near Miramshah when Khwaja left the area two months ago.
Khalid Khwaja is an interesting person. He was the lawyer whose petition to the Lahore High Court in February prevented the extradition of Mullah Omar's captured deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Barodar and four other senior Taliban leaders, to Kabul. It is worth reading his petition, published on the Long War Journal website.
It was also announced today that Greek national Athanassios Lerounis, who was was abducted eight months ago while based in the Kalash Valley in the northern district of Chitral, where he worked as the curator of a heritage museum, has been released.
Lerounis was taken across the border to the Afghan province of Nuristan where his captors demanded the release of militants held by Pakistan in exchange for his freedom.
"He has been released by the successful efforts of Pakistani security agencies," Rahmatullah Wazir, the top administrative official in Chitral, told the BBC.
At one point members of the Kalash community threatened to leave Pakistan en masse if Lerounis was not returned unharmed. He had lived in the Kalash Valley for many years while pursuing his interest in an ancient "lost tribe" of Greeks when he was kidnapped by armed men on 7 September 2009. During the kidnap a local man was shot dead.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Education progress or education scam?

In mid-March the Afghan Ministry of Education reported that at least 240 schools, mostly in the volatile south and southeast of Afghanistan, had reopened over the past 18 months. The Ministry said that 18 schools had been reopened in Ghazni Province, central Afghanistan, over the past few months, most of which had closed in 2007-8 due to attacks by the Taliban.
This comes against a desperate background in Afghanistan's schools. In Early March President Karzai said that almost half of school-age children - around five million - do not have access to education. Numbers are up from their low point of less than a million children in school at the end of the Taliban rule, but there is still a long way to go.
All the more reason for the surprise about Ghazni Province. According to the Ministry's spokesman Abdul Sabour Ghofrani, “Almost all of the 456 schools in Ghazni Province are now functioning and we expect 50,000 extra students will be enrolled in 2010”. He added that the breakthrough was achieved with the support of local people, including religious leaders and tribal elders.
What was behind the suceess? Martine van Bijlert from the Afghan Analysts Network has some interesting answers.
According to Bijlert,"the local Taliban had issued an order, which was being implemented, that in the new year (starting on 21 March) all schools in the province should be reopened, including girls’ schools up to sixth grade. The Taliban was said to have been so serious about it that they offered to introduce teachers and district representatives wherever the government was unable to provide them or to ensure that they did their job properly."
One explanation for the Taliban change of heart is the fact that the Education Ministry is now controlled by Minister Farooq Wardak, who is a member of Hezb-e-Islami, the party led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (A delegation from Hekmatyar's military faction of Hezb-e-Islami has recently been in Kabul exploring the possibility of joining the Karzai government).
As Bijlert says: "The move (ie reopening schools - ed)was explained as a result of the realization in Taliban and Hezb-e Islami ranks, as well as in the wider Pashtun community, that the campaign against education was harming both the reputation of the insurgents’ cause and the future of the Pashtuns, who would otherwise remain largely illiterate."
However, it may not be so simple. Bijlert says other reports suggest a very different explanation: "According to these reports government staff, local Taliban commanders and teachers had joined hands in an elaborate salary scam, in which they conspired to create the impression that all schools were active, all teacher slots filled and all teachers actually teaching - in order to claim the total budget for salaries and other costs, and divide it among those involved (which, if the reports are true, will also need to include senior figures at the centre on both sides)."
In Afghanistan, nothing is simple.

Friday 2 April 2010

Renaming of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province

Congratulations to all the residents of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as the NWFP is now to be known. After many generations at least you have your name back. The land may take a little longer.
However, the renaming has not gone down well in all quarters. One well known lawyer in Peshawar, Barrister Baachaa, said the province should have been renamed Afghania. He said the new name was a plot and that it would soon be shortened to Khyber.
And in Hazara there was also unhappiness with the name. A large rally in Abbottabad agreed to campaign to separate from K-P and set up a new province called Hazara. Speakers at the rally said the Karakoram Highway would be blocked from Jarikas to Kohistan district. They decided to set up a committee to mark out the future strategy for the establishment of Hazara province. Elsewhere in the newly named province, there was dancing and singing in the streets.

Thursday 1 April 2010

More on US Army Human Terrain Teams

The US Army's controversial Human Terrain Teams (HTTs), which use anthropologists and social scientists to collect information in Iraq and Afghanistan, are dysfunctional and corrupt, according to John Stanton, a Virginia-based writer specializing in national security matters, who has written a series of highly critical articles on the HTTs and published on the Cryptome website.
I have written on this subject before, noting the uneasiness within the US academic anthropology community about the Human Terrain System, but Stanton goes much further, alleging both incompetence and graft.
His latest article quotes one source saying: "Honestly, the Human Terrain System is just a good old boy system of retired colonels who care only about punching the time-clock and financial gain. They don't give a rat's ass about the people downrange. They only care about selling the program."